At 5:59 a.m. on Oct. 1, 1964, the signals rang on platform 9 in Tokyo station to announce the departure of “Hikari No. 1,” the first scheduled train on the Tokaido Shinkansen. In the early light of dawn, the train glided past Yurakucho, providing passengers with elevated views of the famous old Nichigeki theater on the left and the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Imperial Hotel on the right.

Soon afterward, in the countryside beyond Shin-Yokohama, the train smoothly accelerated. When it was announced over the public address system that the train had reached its maximum speed of 210 kph, it set off cheers, whistles and applause from its jubilant passengers.

While many people tend to dwell on the shinkansen’s speed, it deserves equal praise for other attributes, such as comfort, punctuality and, above all, safety. Over the past five decades, the Tokaido Shinkansen alone has carried more than 5.6 billion passengers while maintaining its unblemished safety record.

The Tokaido Shinkansen’s roots date back to the late 1930s. Japan had looked on in envy when steam locomotive-powered trains in Germany and Britain set successive speed records in 1936 and 1938 in excess of 200 kph. During that decade, Japan’s expanding economic and military interests in Asia demanded a means of transporting ever-greater amounts of men and material to and from Korea, Manchuria and China. A high-speed railway network would address those needs while raising the nation’s prestige.

Thus, plans for the ambitious dangan ressha (bullet train) project were launched in December 1938. It was to be a standard-gauge railway that would link Tokyo with Shimonoseki in Yamaguchi Prefecture, a distance of 984.4 km that could be accomplished in nine hours, with a projected completion date of 1954.

To service the ambitions of Japan’s increasingly far-flung colonial empire, the plan called for it to eventually extend to mainland Asia via an undersea tunnel to the Korean port of Busan, and continue to Keijo (Seoul), Shinkyo (Hsinking, the capital of Manchukuo, which is now called Changchun), with ongoing connections to Mukden (Shenyang) and Beijing.

In September 1940, the Diet allocated a total budget of ¥556 million for the project.

The line originally planned in the 1930s was vastly different from what was to eventually begin service in 1964. For one thing, Japan’s military chiefs regarded electric trains as being more vulnerable to enemy attack (as knocking out a transformer would disable such trains on the line regardless of their location), so they insisted that steam locomotives be utilized. And the line would have transported freight as well as passengers, with different stations served accordingly.

Expansion of war from December 1941 quickly drew off funding from the project, which was finally aborted in June 1944. However, the current line utilizes three of the tunnels initially excavated for the prewar project. The term referring to it as the “new trunk line,” or shinkansen, was also retained.

The Tokaido Shinkansen that came into being in 1964 was, by anyone’s estimation, far more modest in its scope.

As Japan’s economy recovered from wartime devastation, the cities along the Tokaido (“East Sea Road”) were home to 40 percent of the country’s population and 60 percent of its manufacturing capacity. And while accounting for only about 3 percent of the entire Japanese National Railways (JNR) network, the main Tokaido line, forced to handle nearly one-half of the country’s total passenger and freight transport, was literally creaking at the seams.

Averaging about 80 kph over the 515-km distance, the Tsubame (Swallow) limited express trains that linked Tokyo and Osaka took 6½ hours. A round-trip journey could feasibly be made in one day, but didn’t leave much time for anything else.

What’s more, it was also painfully obvious to planners that JNR would soon be involved in a life-or-death competition with domestic airlines and the Tomei and Meishin expressways. Modernization was deemed critical to the railway’s survival.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of JNR’s forerunner, the Railway Technical Institute organized a public forum at Yamaha Hall in Ginza on May 30, 1957. During the event, Director Takeshi Shinohara hoped to stir debate with an ambitious blueprint for modernization titled “The Possibility of a Three-hour Rail Trip Between Tokyo and Osaka.”

At first glance, Shinohara’s vision appeared wildly impractical. After all, full electrification of the Tokaido Line had only been completed six months earlier. Even then, the narrow-gauge (1,067-mm) track width adopted by the JNR network — which was well-suited for Japan’s mountainous terrain and 20 percent cheaper to build — would not provide the stability needed for high speeds.

While people debated the next move, events far from Japan would soon exert a powerful influence. On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the world’s first orbital satellite, setting off a space race between two superpowers. Japanese became acutely aware that while the Americans and Soviets were engaged in flat-out competition to put the first man into space, it still took six hours to travel by rail between the country’s two largest cities.

Two years earlier, Shinji Sogo, then age 71, had been brought out of retirement at the urging of then-Prime Minister Ichiro Hatoyama and Minister of Transport (and later Prime Minister) Takeo Miki to head the JNR. A farmer’s son from rural Ehime Prefecture, Sogo was possessed with a fearsome temper that earned him the nickname “Kaminari Oyaji” (“Old Man Thunder”).

A protege of Shimpei Goto, a prominent political figure who had headed Japan’s Railway Bureau, Sogo had put in a stint as a director of The South Manchuria Railway Co., which Japan had taken over from Russia in 1906. Running trains on the standard international gauge of 1,435 mm, the “Mantetsu” in November 1934 initiated the “Asia Express” linking Dalian to Hsinking — the fastest scheduled train in Asia. Its maximum speed of 140 kph rivaled the best passenger railways in Europe and the United States.

After seeing Shinohara’s blueprint for the shinkansen, Sogo began pitching the project to politicians. It wasn’t going to be cheap, he told them, because it would be built from scratch on the standard international gauge. Moreover, bridges, tunnels and viaducts would account for roughly half of the Tokaido Shinkansen Line’s length. Realizing that at least ¥300 billion was needed to build the new railroad, Sogo settled for a politically expedient appropriation of ¥194.8 billion — enough to get the ball rolling but not nearly enough to see it through. The Diet voted its approval on Dec. 18, 1958.

To make up for the projected shortfall, Sogo turned to the World Bank in Washington. “It was not that Japan lacked the funds to build the shinkansen,” explained Sogo’s son, Shinsaku, a former executive director of the Japan External Trade Organization. “My father went to the World Bank to force Japan to commit itself. Many people were against the shinkansen and he wanted to prevent them from halting the project.”

The World Bank directors listened to Sogo politely but were skeptical. Rail was seen as a thing of the past. Struggling with his limited English, Sogo demonstrated yet another of his many attributes — that of a persuasive salesman. “If Japan is still an underdeveloped country,” he argued, “isn’t that all the more reason why it needs a better railway? When you build a new house, it’s natural to furnish it with new facilities. And when you build a new railway, it makes sense to use the newest technology available.”

The original request was for $200 million, but the loan approved in April 1961 was pared to $80 million and came with interest of 5.75 percent, to be repaid over a period of 20 years. The figure comprised about 15 percent of the total cost of the shinkansen’s construction.

The gradual appreciation of the Japanese yen from 360 to 220 against the U.S. dollar worked in Japan’s favor, greatly reducing the burden in terms of both principal and interest. The final installment was paid in May 1981.

Finances, however, were only one of a number of stumbling blocks. For a start, there was a great deal of bickering over which cities the new line would serve. Because of its wider-gauge track than the JNR’s national standard, the trains could not be switched over to any other line. The onbound passengers would have to get off and change trains.

Given the current success and popularity of the shinkansen, it may seem remarkable in retrospect, but many Japanese expressed vehement opposition to the new railway. Hiroyuki Agawa, a prolific author and railway buff best known for his biography of Japan’s wartime naval commander, Isoroku Yamamoto, ridiculed the plan. Along with the seven wonders of the ancient world, he remarked, his navy colleagues used to refer cynically to “the world’s three great follies”: the Great Wall of China, the Egyptian pyramids and the battleship Yamato — enormous, costly things that ultimately turned out to be useless. To these three, Agawa added a fourth: a standard-gauge train for the Tokaido. (After the new line went into service, he retracted his criticism and became a fan.)

Another savvy decision by Sogo was to replace chief engineer Matsutaro Fujii with Hideo Shima, a man with engineering skills and leadership. As per the terms of the postwar Occupation, Japan had been prohibited from engaging in military research and development, so about 20 of its most talented military aviation engineers had found employment with the railways. Harnessing their know-how, they were able to overcome a host of technical challenges. “Flutter oscillation,” or instability generated at high speeds, was reduced by wind-tunnel testing that gave the front cars their aerodynamic, conical shape. Another was reduction of so-called tunnel boom, the loud noise produced by the shock wave ahead of a high-speed train emerging from a tunnel. Another team was formed to develop a dynamic braking system capable of quickly halting trains in the event of a major earthquake.

No detail was ignored. Instead of wood, the railway ties were made of steel-reinforced concrete, mounted on rubber cushions to reduce noise and vibration. And because the rails were connected by continuous welds, the rhythmic clackety-clack noise of ordinary trains was largely eliminated. To ensure safety, a computerized Automatic Train Control system monitored all trains on the line from a central traffic control that displayed speed, distance between trains, time delays and other data.

On March 3, 1963, a shinkansen prototype running on the JNR test track near Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture, was clocked at 257 kph — the world speed record at the time. And in what must have been an exhilarating moment for its designers, the train actually outpaced a light airplane sent by a newspaper to photograph the run.

Sadly, both Sogo, “the father of the shinkansen,” and Shima, the engineer credited with building it, were obliged to resign before the project was finished, to take responsibility for the cost overruns and several fatal accidents on regular lines. That neither were invited to bask in the accolades at the shinkansen’s inaugural run on Oct. 1, 1964 appears to have been the height of ingratitude. In the long run, however, both men’s contributions have been acknowledged and their place in history secured.

The same could be said for the original 0 Series shinkansen trains, with their blue and cream color scheme and rounded cab that earned them the affectionate nickname “Dangoppana” (dumpling nose). Emblazoned on travel posters shown winging past a snow-capped Mount Fuji, they came to epitomize the country’s re-emergence as an economic success: methodical, meticulous, punctual, safe, courteous and efficient. Whatever changes Japan has undergone over the past five decades, the shinkansen — which continued to thrive and expand following the breakup of the debt-ridden JNR in 1987 — upholds the attributes that reflect favorably on the national self-image and projects that image to the outside world.

Those who visited Japan for the experience of riding it were not disappointed. This writer traveled from Tokyo to Kyoto in December 1965 in his first of what were to be many, many trips aboard the shinkansen and I have heard a number of memorable anecdotes over the years.

One such anecdote, by Joseph Grace, a former operator of a Tokyo-based travel agency, provides an account that perhaps sums up the service fairly succinctly.

“While I was maneuvering through a door on the shinkansen I split the seat of my trousers,” Grace recalls. “I mentioned this to the conductor. He directed me to his small cubicle and took out a needle and thread. I sat there in my shorts, and while we chatted he sewed a very neat seam in my trousers. He did such a good job that I didn’t even have to take them in for repairs.”

Keith Fender, world news editor at The Railway Magazine, a London-based publication for railway fans with a 179-year history, points out that the shinkansen became the vanguard for high-speed rail travel. “When Japan introduced the shinkansen in 1964, many European countries were still building steam locomotives,” Fender says. “The shinkansen transformed attitudes to passenger rail travel in Europe and beyond. Running a few test trains very quickly was one thing, but (operating) regular passenger trains at 200 kph in Europe took another decade.”

According to Fender, the success of shinkansen initially led the French to consider trains powered by gas turbine engines. “Following the 1973 Middle East oil crisis, these were ruled out in favor of electrified high-speed routes. The first of these opened partially in 1981, connecting Paris and Lyon,” he says.

Former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka’s 1972 bestseller “Nihon Retto Kaizoron” (“Building a New Japan: The Plan for Remodeling the Japanese Archipelago”) called for a national network of shinkansen lines, part of expansion of the transport infrastructure, to distribute more economic functions to medium-size cities.

Tanaka’s vision of a nationwide shinkansen network indeed came to pass and as of March 2014, the combined number of scheduled trains on the nation’s eight shinkansen lines is 1,144 runs per day. (Akita operates 32 runs per day, Hokuriku 57, Joetsu 159, Kyushu 125, Sanyo 255, Tohoku 177, Tokaido 306 and Yamagata 33.)

Rather than decentralizing the functions and invigorating the country’s regional economies, however, the shinkansen came to be seen as a “straw” that sucked up the functions of the regional economies and exacerbated the ikkyoku shūchū (overconcentration) of people, information, financial and political power in Tokyo and other major cities.

When urban housing costs skyrocketed during the bubble economy, increasing numbers of daily commuters found the disparity in living costs so great, it became cheaper for them to live in outflung rural areas and commute to Tokyo on shinkansen lines. More than 20,000 people a day, including students, now take advantage of the Flex rail pass system.

By 2045, when the much-vaunted Chuo Linear Express, with its magnetic levitation technology that enables mind-boggling speeds of more than 500 kph, makes its debut — probably between Shinagawa and Osaka (preceded by Shinagawa-Nagoya from 2027) — it’s difficult to envisage in what ways Japan will have changed.

Still, as long as engineers continue their ongoing quest to refine conventional rail technology, we can expect the Champagne corks will pop aboard even speedier and more comfortable trains, when passengers 50 years in the future herald the shinkansen’s centenary.

Fast and furious facts about Japan’s iconic bullet train

  • The Japanese National Railways estimated the shinkansen’s contribution to the national economy at ¥900 billion before it carried a single paying passenger.
  • The configuration of the original 0 series trains consisted of 12 cars that could carry a total of 987 passengers. Initially, only seats in the first-class “Green Car” could recline.
  • During its first year of service, Tokaido Shinkansen trains were purposely run slower than they were capable as a safety precaution in order to allow the rail bed to settle on its foundations. It finally reached its maximum operational speed of 210 kph in November 1965.
  • During the 1970 World Exposition in Osaka, Hikari limited express trains were lengthened from 12 cars to 16, enabling the line to carry more than 1 million passengers a day.
  • Tokaido Shinkansen trains carry about 340,000 business passengers and 80,000 tourists per weekday (number of leisure travelers rises to 170,000 on weekends).
  • A project launched in 1972 to provide a nonstop 35-minute shinkansen service from Tokyo Station to Narita International Airport was aborted in 1983 after construction of only 9 km of trackbed and a shell station in the terminal building.
  • After a hiatus of 23 years, JR Tokai received government permission to increase its maximum speed from the current 270 kph to 285 kph. The increase, which will take effect next spring, is expected to reduce travel time between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka by two to three minutes.
  • The fastest current shinkansen series are the E5 (10-car configuration, in service from 2011) and E6 (seven-car configuration, from 2014), with maximum operating speeds of 320 kph.
  • In 2012, JR Central reported that the shinkansen’s average delay from schedule per train was 36 seconds.
  • Some European and Japanese high-speed trains share similar designs. According to The Railway Magazine’s Keith Fender, German designer Alexander Neumeister worked not only on the German ICE3 design — versions of which also operate in Spain, Russia, China and Denmark — but also the shinkansen.
  • Japan has exported rolling stock, concluded technical agreements or is currently pitching proposals with a number of countries and regions, including Taiwan, China, Britain, Brazil, the U.S., Canada, Vietnam and India.
  • According to Gulf Business in Dubai, the world’s 10 fastest trains in terms of operating speed are: Shanghai maglev train at 431 kph (China), CRH380A at 349 kph (China), AGV Italo at 360 kph (Italy), Shinkansen E5 at 320 kph (Japan), TGV at 320 kph (France), ICE 3 at 320 kph (Germany), KTX-Sancheon at 305 kph (South Korea), AVE S103 at 300 kph (Spain), British Rail Class 373 Eurostar at 300 kph (UK) and THSR 700T at 300 kph (Taiwan).

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